Justification Does Involve A Change That Is Real

[Both the noun 'justification' and the verb 'justified'], deem right in relationship.[1]  The sense of this verb is foundational to the entire theological discussion.  This commentary [on Romans] holds that it is a primarily legal or forensic term, denoting the attribution of status in relation to someone - most often to God.  Therefore it is regularly translated by a paraphrase such as 'declare' or 'pronounce righteous,' 'innocent,' or 'in a right relationship.'  The alternative view is that it refers primarily to an actual transformation particularly with respect to the behaviour of the person; this view favours a translation such as 'make righteous.'

The forensic understanding is reinforced by the Christological aspect of justification.  Justification is possible as a gift because of the action of God in Christ.  Thus justification is 'through the redemption that is by Christ Jesus' (Romans 3:24), 'by his blood' (Romans 5:9), and provides 'peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ' (Romans 5:1).  Justification takes place according to the eternal plan of God (Romans 8:30, 33) - a mystery that has now been revealed in Christ Jesus.  Through baptismal incorporation into Christ, a person dies to sin and is raised with Christ to new life, now justified in the sense of having been freed from Sin's power to accuse and bind him (Romans 6:7).

To be sure, justification is God's declaration.  God's words are powerful and performative; justification is not just some 'legal fiction.'  Justification does involve a change that is real - even if it can only be believed in: a change in one's status in relationship to God.  It must also be affirmed that the justifying Word also creates a 'new man' and gives the life of the age to come.  But the new man is an article of faith, not a phenomenon of experience, and participation in eschatological life is true now in the sacramental sense, but also with a future consummation in experience.  For now, the creation of the new man and the gift of the life of the new age cause the believer to experience his current life as a struggle - albeit a struggle in hope.  Therefore the surpassing comfort of justification is not to be located in any present (experienced) transformation, and most certainly not in any identifiable good works that result, but in the declaration of the forgiveness of sins because of the victory God has wrought in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 7:24-25).
[1] See Romans 2:13, 3:4, 3:20, 3:24, 3:26, 3:28, 3:30, 4:2, 4:5, 5:1, 5:9, 6:7, 8:30, 8:33.

Excerpt taken from: 
Jonathan F. Grothe, The Justification of the Ungodly: An Interpretation of Romans - Second Edition (St. Caharines, Ontario, Canada: 2012), 280-281.  Additions to the quote are in brackets.  

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